Post-Khomeini Iranian Society Warms to Tolerance

By Daniel Brumberg

Some 20 years after Iran’s Islamic Leftists embraced the Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for an Islamic State, many have concluded that the relationship between state and religion must be redefined in way that makes the state the guardian of religious freedom, rather than the enforcer of a particular dogma.

Paradoxically, these “children of the revolution” once constituted the vanguard of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They included the philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush, several leaders of the “Students of the Imam’s Line,” the group that seized the American Embassy in November 1979, and Mohammad Khatami, the president of the IRI. These Islamic Leftists viewed religious symbols as a potent resource for mobilizing the masses behind a struggle for intellectual and economic independence, social justice and mass democracy. Democrats but not pluralists, they held that the “people” would realize the truths of Islam via elections that expressed a collective will.

This neo-Leninist position opened the door to accepting Khomeini’s notion of velayat-e faqih or “The Rule of the Jurist.” So long as the “people” embraced this novel concept, they had to submit to Khomeini’s authority. Khomeini repaid such loyalty by giving Islamic Leftists a key role in the parliament and in the ruling institutions of the state.

In the aftermath of Khomeini’s June 1989 death, the state turned on many of its children. During the 1992 parliamentary elections, hundreds of Islamic Leftists were branded Islamically “unfit.” After the elections, this purge continued; among its victims were then Minister of Islamic Guidance Khatami, Abbas Abdi, the publisher of the reformist paper Salam, and Ayatollah Khoiniha, publisher of Salam and the leader of the “Students of the Imam’s Line.”

In the regime’s eyes, Abdi and Khoiniha had sinned by asserting that Khomeini himself had held that the authority of the faqih derived from the people’s votes. This daring thesis earned Abdi eight months in prison, while Khoiniha was forbidden from participating in the state’s ruling institutions. As for Khatami, he was forced to resign after his efforts to open up the film industry provoked cries of “Wetsern cultural onslaught” from the conservative clergy.

But these actions backfired: persecuted by the very state they had had once tried to legitimate, Islamic Leftists began to rethink. In his 1994 book, Fear of the Wave, Khatami held that “in the name of . defending religion, if we step on freedom, we will have caused a great catastrophe.” Sorush went further, asserting that the mixing of religion and all forms of power would destroy “the very thing that the clergy claim to protect, namely the religion itself.”

Many observers view this conversion to liberalism with suspicion. How can yesterday’s radicals not only embrace pluralism but uphold a view of the link between church and state that echoes the experience of the United States? When Khatami declares that in America “religion found protection of liberty as its divine calling,” when he states that “we seek . what the founders of American civilization were also pursuing,” are these extraordinary claims not an example of the Islamic Left’s crass opportunism?

Perhaps. Yesterday’s Islamic Leftists shifted ground in part because they were persecuted by an “Islamic” state. But there was more to it than that. They had always viewed the West with a mix of love and hate. They wanted much of what the West had to offer but believed that the only way to mobilize the masses was to construct an ideology that pitted “Islamic” civilization against its “Western” adversary. Having paid a heavy price for such xenophobia, many radicals have since accepted Khatami’s argument that because that because civilizations are the creations of rational men and women, Muslims must pursue a “dialogue” through which the West’s most important feature – its support of individual rights – becomes integrated into an Islamic world view.

Moreover, Iran’s Islamic Leftists have long believed, as Abdi declared, in the utilitarian notion that “whatever works is good.” That Abdi now holds that pluralism provides the best means of protecting religion in no way diminishes the sincerity of his convictions. The October 1999 trial of former Minister of Interior Abdullah Nuri, during which he invoked Khomeini’s words to defend pluralism before a “Special Clerical Court,” reminds us how just how far the struggle to redefine state-society relations has advanced.

That struggle is not over. The February 2000 elections may have given Khatami the parliamentary majority he needs to advance his call for individual rights and an “Islamic” civil society. But the conservatives are not sitting still. The attempted assassination last month of Seyyed Hajjarian, Khatami’s chief advisor, suggests that many conservatives fear that Khatami’s efforts to protect piety by getting the state out of the business of imposing faith is a slippery slope to the IRI’s self destruction.

Paradoxically, the fate of reform may hinge on demonstrating that the conservatives are wrong; that is, that the effort to distance faith and power will save rather than destroy the IRI. Can reformists walk this tight rope? Or will they provoke a backlash from those who believe that the faqih’s authority must remain supreme? When I interviewed Abbas Abdi, he seemed convinced that the reformists would prevail. I admired his optimism. But whether today’s “children of the revolution” can extricate themselves from an ideological legacy that they helped to create remains to be seen.

Dr. Daniel Brumberg is an assistant professor in the government department.

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